1754 - Operations on the Ohio River

From Project Seven Years War
Jump to navigationJump to search

Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Campaigns >> 1754 - Operations on the Ohio River

The campaign lasted from April to July 1754


Best way to use our maps…

Since a few years we publish more and more large maps for campaigns and battles. Unfortunately, we can only integrate lower resolution versions of these maps in the main body of the related articles. This reduces their readability and it could be annoying to navigate back and forth between the article and the high resolution version of the map. For these reasons, we propose an approach which, in our opinion, is optimal to get the best experience while reading an article which is complemented with maps.

  1. in the article, right click on the low resolution image and, in the contextual menu, click on “Open link in a new window”
  2. a new window will open with a larger version of the map
  3. please note that, most of the time, this is not yet the highest resolution map; just under the map, you will notice a list of higher resolution images, just click on the highest (rightmost) resolution proposed and you get the best map available
  4. you now have the article and the large image displayed in two distinct windows, you can either navigate from one window to another or, if you have a large screen or a dual screen setup, you can even have the two windows displayed side-by-side


In the spring of 1753, Governor General Duquesne sent a French expedition to occupy the Ohio Country. They landed at Presque Isle (present-day Erie, PA) where they built a fort. The French forces, under the command of Paul Marin de la Malgue, then cut a southward road of about 80 km through the woods to Rivière aux Boeufs (present-day French Creek) where another fort was built. Afterward, they descended the French Creek and the Allegheny River to the Ohio.

In August, Marin sent 60 men to seize a trading-house belonging to the trader Fraser in the Native American town of Venango.

Ohio River Basin - Copyright: Kronoskaf

In September, Marin died of dysentery and Duquesne dispatched Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre from Montréal to take command of the expedition.

The presence of a strong French force in the Ohio Valley induced the Miami to abandon their alliance with the British and to side with France. The Sauk, Ojibwe and Potawatomi soon joined the French alliance as well. Even the Iroquois, Lenape, and Shawnee on the Allegheny had come to the French camp and offered their help in carrying the baggage. The French hoped that with perseverance, they would win over every tribe from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River.

Lieutenant-Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia learned through traders and Native Americans that a strong detachment from Canada had entered British territories and built forts on Lake Erie and on a branch of the Ohio. Dinwiddie immediately warned the Home Government of the danger, and urged the Virginia Assembly to build forts on the Ohio, something he had asked for previously.

Duquesne had also planned to build a third fort at the junction of French Creek with the Allegheny or at some point lower down and then to send Péan, Marin's second in command, downstream on the Ohio to gain the alliance of the remaining tribes. However, fevers, lung diseases, and scurvy broke out among the French troops and Canadiens. Péan left a garrison of 300 men at Forts Presque Isle and Le Boeuf; and then, as winter approached, the rest were sent back to Montréal. Meanwhile, Legardeur de Saint-Pierre arrived at the end of autumn, making his quarters at Fort Le Boeuf.

By then, Dinwiddie had received a letter, signed by King George II, authorizing him to build forts on the Ohio at Virginia's expense, and to repel any intruder by force in case he was molested or obstructed. Moreover, the king wrote, "If you shall find that any number of persons shall presume to erect any fort or forts within the limits of our province of Virginia, you are first to require of them peaceably to depart; and if, notwithstanding your admonitions, they do still endeavour to carry out any such unlawful and unjustifiable designs, we do hereby strictly charge and command you to drive them off by force of arms."

On November 1, Dinwiddie assembled the House of Burgesses to present them with the king's instruction. At the assembly, Dinwiddie exposed the danger, and asked for means to meet it. The burgesses refused to grant any money for forts.

Dinwiddie had also written a message to the French, challenging their incursion and summoning them to withdraw. He confided this message to his adjutant-general, the 21-year-old Major George Washington.

Washington set out for the trading station of the Ohio Company on Wills Creek (near present-day Cumberland, Maryland).

In the middle of November, Washington set off into the wilderness with Christopher Gist as a guide, A Dutchman named Van Braam, as French interpreter, a trader named Davison, a Native American interpreter, and four woodsmen as servants. They went to the forks of the Ohio, and then down the river to Logstown. There Washington had various parleys with the Native Americans. He continued his journey after many delays towards Fort Le Boeuf, accompanied by the friendly chief called Tanacharison (known to the British as "the Half-King") of the Mingo People (Iroquois of the Ohio) and by three of his tribesmen. For several days they followed the traders' path, pelted with unceasing rain and snow, and came at last to the old Native American town of Venango, where French Creek enters the Allegheny. A British trading-house was located ther, but the French had seized it, raised their flag over it, and turned it into a military outpost. Joncaire was in command, with two subalterns; and nothing could exceed their civility. They invited the strangers to supper. With all their civility, the French officers did their best to entice away Washington's Native Americans; and it was with extreme difficulty that he could persuade them to go with him.

On December 7, Washington and his little troop left Venango and marched through marshes, swamps, and forests choked with snow, all the while being drenched with incessant rain. They toiled on for four days more.

On December 11, just after sunset, Washington came out of the forest on horseback, attended by a companion much older and rougher than himself, and followed by several Native Americans and four or five white men with pack horses. The wooden walls of Fort Le Boeuf appeared at last, surrounded by fields studded thick with stumps, and half-encircled by the chill current of French Creek, along the banks of which lay more than 200 canoes, ready to carry troops in the spring. Officers from Fort Le Boeuf went out to meet the strangers; and, wading through mud and sodden snow, they entered at the gate.

On December 12 Washington, with the help of an interpreter, for he spoke no French, had an interview with Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, and gave him a letter from Governor Dinwiddie. Washington describes Legardeur de Saint-Pierre as "an elderly gentleman with much the air of a soldier." The letter sent him by Dinwiddie expressed astonishment that his troops should build forts upon lands "so notoriously known to be the property of the Crown of Great Britain."

"I must desire you," continued the letter, "to acquaint me by whose authority and instructions you have lately marched from Canada with an armed force, and invaded the King of Great Britain's territories. It becomes my duty to require your peaceable departure; and that you would forbear prosecuting a purpose so interruptive of the harmony and good understanding which His Majesty is desirous to continue and cultivate with the Most Christian King. I persuade myself you will receive and entertain Major Washington with the candor and politeness natural to your nation; and it will give me the greatest satisfaction if you return him with an answer suitable to my wishes for a very long and lasting peace between us." Saint-Pierre and the officer next in rank, who knew a little English, took the letter to another room to study it at their ease.

Legardeur de Saint-Pierre took three days to frame the answer. In it he said that he should send Dinwiddie's letter to the Marquis Duquesne and wait his orders; and that meanwhile he should remain at his post, according to the commands of his general. "I made it my particular care," so the letter closed, "to receive Mr. Washington with a distinction suitable to your dignity as well as his own quality and great merit." No form of courtesy had, in fact, been wanting. "He appeared to be extremely complaisant," says Washington, "though he was exerting every artifice to set our Indians at variance with us. I saw that every stratagem was practised to win Tanacharison to their interest." Neither gifts nor brandy were spared; and it was only by the utmost pains that Washington could prevent his red allies from staying at the fort, conquered by French blandishments.

After leaving Venango on his return, Washington found the horses so weak that, to arrive sooner, he left them and their drivers in charge of Van Braam and pushed forward on foot, accompanied by Gist alone. Each was wrapped to the throat in an Indian "matchcoat," with a gun in his hand and a pack at his back. Passing an old Native American hamlet called Murdering Town, they had an adventure that threatened to make good the name. A Native American belonging to thre French party, whom they met in the forest, fired at them, pretending that his gun had gone off by chance. They caught him, and Gist would have killed him; but Washington interposed, and they let him go. Then, to escape pursuit from his tribesmen, they walked all night and all the next day. This brought them to the banks of the Allegheny. They hoped to have found it frozen over, but it was all alive and turbulent, filled with ice sweeping down the current. They made a raft, shoved out into the stream, and were soon caught helplessly in the drifting ice. Washington, pushing hard with his setting-pole, was jerked into the freezing river; but caught a log of the raft, and dragged himself out. By no efforts could they reach the farther bank, or regain that which they had left; but they were driven against an island, where they landed, and left the raft to its fate. The night was excessively cold, and Gist's feet and hands were badly frostbitten. In the morning, the ice had set, and the river was a solid floor. They crossed it, and succeeded in reaching the house of the trader Fraser, on the Monongahela. It was the middle of January 1754 when Washington arrived at Williamsburg and made his report to Dinwiddie, informing him that the French refused to leave.



As a temporary resource, Lieutenant-Governor Dinwiddie had ventured to order a draft of 200 men from the Virginia militia. Washington was to have command, with the trader, William Trent, as his lieutenant.

In January, Dinwiddie instructed Washington to push with all speed to the forks of the Ohio, and there build a fort; "but in case any attempts are made to obstruct the works by any persons whatsoever, to restrain all such offenders, and, in case of resistance, to make prisoners of, or kill and destroy them."

The lieutenant-governor next sent messengers to the Catawba, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Iroquois of the Ohio, inviting them to take up the hatchet against the French, "who, under pretence of embracing you, mean to squeeze you to death." Then he wrote urgent letters to the governors of Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, Maryland, and New Jersey, begging for contingents of men, to be at Wills Creeks in March 1754 at the latest.

In February, a band of backwoodsmen under Captain Trent crossed the mountains to build a storehouse and stockade at the forks of the Ohio, where Pittsburgh now stands, a spot that Washington had examined when on his way to Fort Le Boeuf, and which he had reported as the best for the purpose. Tanacharison and the Iroquois of the Ohio assisted Trent.

On February 14, the House of Burgesses of Virginia met again, summoned by Dinwiddie. The latter hoped to obtain a fund to qualify him to send about 450 additional men to the Ohio, which he hoped, along with the assistance of the neighbouring colonies, might put a stop to French ambitions. The assembly voted 10,000 pounds in Virginia currency to defend the frontier.

Dinwiddie then invited the Native Americans to meet him in council at Winchester, and, as bait to attract them, coupled the message with a promise of gifts. He sent circulars from the king to the neighbouring governors, calling for supplies, and wrote letter upon letter to rouse them to effort. He wrote also to the more distant governors, Delancey of New York, and Shirley of Massachusetts, begging them to make demonstrations against Canada, to prevent the French from sending so large a force to the Ohio. It was to the nearer colonies, from New Jersey to South Carolina, that he looked for direct aid; and their several governors were all more or less active to procure it. Pennsylvania refused to move. North Carolina alone answered the appeal, and gave money enough to raise about 350 men. Two New York Independent Companies and the South Carolina Independent Companies, had received orders from Great Britain to march to the scene of action; and in these, with the scanty levies of his own and the adjacent province, lay Dinwiddie's only hope. With men abundant and willing, there were no means to put them into the field, and no commander whom they would all obey.

From Williamsburg, Dinwiddie despatched letters and orders via couriers, to hasten the tardy reinforcements of North Carolina and New York, and push on the raw soldiers of Virginia, who now numbered 300 men. They were called the Virginia Regiment; and Joshua Fry, an English gentleman, bred at Oxford, was made their colonel, with Washington as second in command.

In March, Fry was at Alexandria with half the so-called regiment, trying to get it into marching order.

On April 2, Washington, with the other half of the regiment, marched towards the Ohio Company's storehouse at Wills Creek, which was to form a base of operations. His men were poor whites, brave, but hard to discipline; without tents, ill armed, and ragged. Washington had been ordered to gather as many supplies and paid volunteers as he could along the way. By the time he left for the frontier, he had gathered 1,867 men.

While Dinwiddie was still toiling to muster his raw recruits, Duquesne's lieutenant, Contrecoeur, successor to Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, had landed at Presque Isle with a much greater force, in part regulars, and in part Canadiens.

Dinwiddie hoped that Trent would fortify himself at the forks of the Ohio before the arrival of the French, and that Washington and Fry would join him in time to secure the position. Trent had begun the fort; but for some unexplained reason had gone back to Wills Creek leaving Ensign Ward with 36 men at work upon it.

French installation at Fort Duquesne

In response, the Canadiens sent a force of about 500 men, Canadiens, French, and Native Americans under Claude-Pierre Pécaudy de Contrecœur (rumors reaching Trent's men put its size at 1,000).

On April 16, Contrecœur, coming down the Allegheny with a swarm of bateaux and canoes, arrived at the forks of the Ohio, interrupting the labours of Ward's detachment. The 500 Frenchmen landed, planted cannon against the incipient stockade, and summoned Ensign Ward to surrender, on pain of what might ensue.

On April 17, Trent's force of 36 men, led by Ensign Edward Ward in Trent's absence, agreed to leave the site. Contrecœur tore down the British works, and began construction of the fort he called Fort Duquesne. Ward retraced his steps over the mountains, and reported his mishap to Washington.

In May, Dinwiddie was deeply vexed when a message from Washington told him how his plans were blighted. He considered this action as a beginning of hostilities on the part of the French. He still hoped that, with the arrival of the independent companies from New York, it would be possible to dislodge the French or build a fort on the Ohio.

Dinwiddie and Washinton then acted much as if war had been declared, even though no formal declaration had been made. From the station at Wills Creek, the distance by the traders' path to Fort Duquesne was about 225 km. Midway on this route was a branch of the Monongahela called Redstone Creek, at the mouth of which the Ohio Company had built another storehouse. Dinwiddie ordered all the forces to cross the mountains and assemble at this point, until they should be strong enough to advance against the French. The movement was critical in presence of an enemy as superior in discipline as he was in numbers, while the natural obstacles were great. A road suitable for cannon and wagons had to be cut through a dense forest and over two ranges of high mountains, besides countless hills and streams. Washington set all his force to the work, and they spent a fortnight in making 32 km.

Washington's advance

On May 23, Contrecoeur, operating under orders that forbade attacks by his force unless they were provoked, sent Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville with 34 men (1 officer, 3 cadets, 1 volunteer, 1 interpreter, and 28 men) to see if Washington had entered French territory, and with a summons to order Washington's troops to leave. This summons was similar in nature to the one Washington had delivered to the French four months previous. Sources disagree on the exact composition of Jumonville's force, which may have included French Troupes de la Marine, Canadien militia, and Native Americans. Jumonville had been instructed to send two couriers back with all speed to Fort Duquesne to inform the commandant when he had found the British before delivering the summons.

Washington was on the Youghiogheny River, a branch of the Monongahela, exploring it in hopes that it might prove navigable, when a messenger came to him from his old comrade, Tanacharison, who was on the way to join him. The message was to the effect that the French had marched from their fort, and meant to attack the first British they should meet. A report came soon after that they were already at the ford of the Youghiogheny, 29 km distant. Washington at once repaired to the Great Meadows, a level tract of grass and bushes, bordered by wooded hills, and traversed in one part by a gully.

On May 25, with a little labour Washington's men turned the Great Meadows into an entrenchment, at the same time cutting away the bushes and clearing what the young commander called "a charming field for an encounter." Parties were sent out to scour the woods, but they found no enemy.

On the morning of May 27, Christopher Gist, who had lately made a settlement on the farther side of Laurel Hill, 20 km distant, came to the camp with news that 50 Frenchmen had been at his house towards noon of the day before, and would have destroyed everything but for the intervention of two Native Americans whom he had left in charge during his absence. Washington sent 75 men under Captain Hog to look for the party. The search was in vain, the French having hidden themselves so well as to escape any eye but that of a Native American.

In the evening a runner came from Tanacharison, who was encamped with a few warriors some miles distant. He had sent to tell Washington that he had found the tracks of two men, and traced them towards a dark glen in the forest, where in his belief all the French were lurking. Washington hesitated a moment, fearing a stratagem to surprise his camp. Finally, at 10:00 p.m., he left his main force to guard his camp and set out for Tanacharison's wigwams at the head of 40 men. The night was rainy, and the forest, to use his own words, "as black as pitch." "The path," he continues, "was hardly wide enough for one man; we often lost it, and could not find it again for fifteen or twenty minutes, and we often tumbled over each other in the dark." During his advance, 7 of his men were lost in the woods and left behind. The rest groped their way all night.

Skirmish at Jumonville Glen

At sunrise on May 28, Washington's party met with Tanacharison's 12 Native American warriors. A council was held where Washington and Tanacharison agreed to attack the French encampment. Two Mingo warriors led the way. The tracks of the two French scouts seen the day before were again found, and, marching in single file, the party pushed through the forest into the rocky hollow where the French were supposed to be concealed. They were there in fact; and they snatched their guns the moment they saw the British. Washington gave the word to fire. A short fight ensued. Coulon de Jumonville, an ensign in command, was killed, along with nine other Frenchmen. Two more were wounded and 21 captured. None escaped except a Canadien who had fled at the beginning of the fray. After it was over, the prisoners told Washington that the party had been sent to bring him a summons from Contrecoeur, the commandant at Fort Duquesne.

The exact manner of Jumonville's death is uncertain, but by several accounts Tanacharison executed him in cold blood, crushing his head with a tomahawk and washing his hands in Jumonville's brains. Another account, reported by a Native American to Contrecœur, claimed that a British soldier shot Jumonville while the summons was being read. Judge it as we may, this obscure skirmish began the war that set the world on fire.

Washington returned to the camp at the Great Meadows and, expecting soon to be attacked, sent for reinforcements to Colonel Fry, who was lying dangerously ill at Wills Creek. Then he set his men to work at an entrenchment, which he named Fort Necessity.

On June 3, the entrenchments at Fort Necessity were completed. It consisted of a circular stockade made of 2.1 m upright logs covered with bark and skins built around a little hut containing ammunition and provisions. Tanacharison then joined Washington, along with the female potentate known as Queen Alequippa, and some 30 Native American families.

A few days after, Gist came from Wills Creek with news that Fry was dead, having fallen from his horse and broken his neck. Washington succeeded to the command of the Virginia Regiment.

On June 9, the remaining three companies of the Virginia Regiment appeared and joined their comrades, raising the whole number to 300. Next, the South Carolina Independent Company arrived; and the Great Meadows became an animated scene, with the wigwams of the Native Americans, the camp-sheds of the rough Virginians, the cattle grazing on the tall grass or drinking at the lazy brook that traversed it; the surrounding heights and forests; and over all, 6 km away the lofty green ridge of Laurel Hill.

In the spring, strong reinforcements had been sent to Fort Duquesne and the garrison now consisted of about 1,400 men. When news of the death of Jumonville reached Montréal, Coulon de Villiers, brother of the slain officer, was sent to the spot with a body of Native Americans from all the tribes in the colony.

Engagement of Fort Necessity

The presence of the South Carolina Independent Company at the Great Meadows was a dubious advantage. Captain James Mackay, its commander, holding his commission from the king, thought himself above any officer commissioned by the governor. There was great courtesy between him and Washington; but Mackay would take no orders, nor even the countersign, from the colonel of volunteers. Nor would his men work, except for an additional shilling a day. To give this was impossible, both from want of money, and from the discontent it would have bred in the Virginians, who worked for nothing besides their daily pay of eight pence.

On June 16, Washington, having heard that there were only 500 badly supplied French troops at Fort Duquesne, resolved to lead the 300 Virginians out of Fort Necessity, leaving Mackay behind, to widen the road for those who would follow to an advanced position at Red Stone Creek.

On June 18, Washington met with Tanacharison, who told him that he had been unable to convince the other chiefs to assist Washington and said that he would also be unable to help the Virginians. Although he had lost Native American support, which made his troops more vulnerable to attack, Washington continued to widen the road towards Red Stone Creek.

When the regiment reached Gist's settlement at Red Stone Creek, it made camp and dug entrenchments. French deserters had brought news that strong reinforcements were expected at Fort Duquesne, and friendly Native Americans repeatedly warned Washington that overwhelming numbers would soon attack him. Washington sent for Mackay and his men.

On June 26 at 8:00 a.m., Louis Coulon de Villiers reached Fort Duquesne with his motley following. Here he found that 500 Frenchmen (200 men of the Troupes de la Marine and 300 men of the Milices Canadiennes) and a few Native Americans (100 Resident Native Americans and 11 Ohio Native Americans) were on the point of marching against the British, under Chevalier Le Mercier; but in view of his seniority in rank and his relationship to Jumonville, the command was now transferred to Villiers. Hereupon, the march was postponed; the newly-arrived warriors were called to council, and Contrecoeur thus harangued them: "The English have murdered my children, my heart is sick; to-morrow I shall send my French soldiers to take revenge. And now, men of the Saut Saint-Louis, men of the Lake of Two Mountains, Hurons, Abenakis, Iroquois of La Présentation, Nipissings, Algonquins, and Odawas, I invite you all by this belt of wampum to join your French father and help him to crush the assassins. Take this hatchet, and with it two barrels of wine for a feast." Both hatchet and wine were cheerfully accepted. Then Contrecoeur turned to the Delawares, who were also present: "By these four strings of wampum I invite you, if you are true children of Onontio, to follow the example of your brethren;" and with some hesitation they also took up the hatchet.

On June 27, the Native Americans and French prepared for an expedition on a larger scale than had been at first intended. Contrecoeur, Villiers, Le Mercier, and Longueuil, after deliberating together, drew up a paper stating that "it was fitting to march against the English with the greatest possible number of French and savages, in order to avenge ourselves and chastise them for having violated the most sacred laws of civilized nations," that, though the British troops' conduct justified the French in disregarding the existing treaty of peace, yet, after thoroughly punishing them, and compelling them to withdraw from the domain of the King, they should be told that, in pursuance of his royal orders, the French looked on them as friends. But it was further agreed that should the British have withdrawn to their own side of the mountains before the French encountered them, "they should be followed to their settlements to destroy them and treat them as enemies, till that nation should give ample satisfaction and completely change its conduct."

On June 28, Mackay arrived with the South Carolina Independent Company. A council of war was held at Gist's house, and as the camp was commanded by neighbouring heights, it was resolved to fall back. The horses were so few that the Virginians had to carry much of the baggage on their backs, and drag nine swivels over the broken and rocky road. The regulars, though they also were raised in the provinces, refused to give the slightest help. The same day, the French party (600 French, 100 Native Americans) set out from Fort Duquesne, paddling their canoes up the Monongahela.

In order to keep ahead of the French/Canadien force, the Virginians had to abandon most of their supplies.

On June 30, Coulon de Villiers reached the deserted storehouse of the Ohio Company at the mouth of Red Stone Creek. It was a building of solid logs, well loopholed for musketry. To please the Native Americans by asking their advice, Villiers called all the chiefs to council which, being concluded to their satisfaction, he left a sergeant's guard at the storehouse to watch the canoes, and began his march through the forest. The path was so rough that at the first halt the chaplain declared he could go no farther, and turned back for the storehouse, though not till he had absolved the whole company in a body. Thus lightened of their sins, they journeyed on, constantly sending out scouts.

On July 1, Washington's force reached Fort Necessity. The position, though perhaps the best in the neighbourhood, was very unfavourable, and Washington would have retreated farther, but for the condition of his men. They were spent with fatigue, and there was no choice but to stay and fight.

On July 2, Coulon de Villiers' force approached Fort Necessity along the road the Virginians had built. They reached the abandoned camp at Gist's settlement and bivouacked, having been drenched all night by rain.

At daybreak on July 3, the French and Native Americans marched again, and passed through the gorge of Laurel Hill. It rained without ceasing; but Villiers pushed his way through the dripping forest to see the place, 1 km from the road, where his brother had been killed, and where several bodies still lay unburied. They had learned the position of the British from a deserter, and Villiers filled the woods in front with a swarm of Native American scouts. He formed his men in column, and ordered every officer to his place.

Washington's men had had a full day at Fort Necessity; but they spent it less in resting from their fatigue than in strengthening their rampart with logs. The fort was a simple square enclosure, with a trench said by a French writer to be only knee deep. On the south, and partly on the west, there was an exterior embankment, which seems to have been made, like a rifle-pit, with the ditch inside. The Virginians had but little ammunition, and no bread whatever, living chiefly on fresh beef. They knew the French were approaching, who were reported to Washington as 900 strong, besides Native Americans.

Towards 11:00 a.m., a wounded sentinel came in with news that they were close at hand; and they presently appeared at the edge of the woods, yelling, and firing from such a distance that their shot fell harmless. Villiers had his plan. "We approached the English," he writes, "as near as possible, without uselessly exposing the lives of the King's subjects." The French made their way through the forest till they came opposite the fort, where they stationed themselves on two densely wooded hills, separated by a small brook. One of the hills was about 100 paces from the British, and the other about 60. Their position was such that the French and Native Americans, well sheltered by trees and bushes, and with the advantage of higher ground, could cross their fire upon the fort and enfilade a part of it.

Washington knew he had to dislodge the Canadiens and Native Americans from that position, so he ordered an assault with his entire force across the open field. He drew up his men on the meadow before the fort. Seeing the assault coming, de Villiers ordered his soldiers, led by Native Americans, to charge directly at Washington's line. Washington ordered the men to hold their ground and fire a volley. Mackay's regulars obeyed Washington's command, and supported by two swivel cannons, they inflicted several casualties on the oncoming Native Americans. The Virginians, however, fled back to the fort, leaving Washington and the British regulars greatly outnumbered. Washington ordered a retreat back to the fort. Coulon de Villiers reformed his troops in the woods. The Canadiens spread out around the clearing and kept up heavy fire on Fort Necessity. Washington ordered his troops to return fire, but they aimed too high, inflicting few casualties. Rain fell all day. The raw earth of the embankment was turned to soft mud, and the men in the ditch of the outwork stood knee deep in water. The swivels brought back from the camp at Gist's farm were mounted on the rampart, but the gunners were so ill protected that the pieces were almost silenced by the French musketry. The fight lasted nine hours. At times the fire on both sides was nearly quenched by the showers, and the sodden combatants could do little but gaze at each other through a grey veil of mist and rain. Towards nightfall, however, the fusillade revived, and became sharp again until dark. At 8:00 p.m. the French called out to propose a parley.

Villiers thus gives his reason for these overtures. "As we had been wet all day by the rain, as the soldiers were very tired, as the savages said that they would leave us the next morning, and as there was a report that drums and the firing of cannon had been heard in the distance, I proposed to M. Le Mercier to offer the English a conference." He says further that ammunition was running short, and that he thought the enemy might sally in a body and attack him. The British, on their side, were in a worse plight. They were half starved, their powder was nearly spent, their guns were foul, and among them all they had but two screw-rods to clean them. In spite of his desperate position, Washington declined the parley, thinking it a pretext to introduce a spy. But when the French repeated their proposal and requested that he sends an officer to them, he could hesitate no longer. There were but two men with him who knew French, Ensign Peyroney, who was disabled by a wound, and the Dutchman, Captain Van Braam. To him the unpalatable errand was assigned.

After a long absence he returned with articles of capitulation offered by Villiers. While the officers gathered about him in the rain, he read and interpreted the paper by the glimmer of a sputtering candle kept alight with difficulty. Objection was made to some of the terms, and they were changed. Van Braam, however, apparently anxious to get the capitulation signed and the affair ended, mistranslated several passages, and rendered the words l'assassinat du Sieur de Jumonville as “the death of the Sieur de Jumonville." As thus understood, the articles were signed about midnight. They provided that the British should march out with drums beating and the honours of war, carrying with them one of their swivels and all their other property; that they should be protected against insult from French or Native Americans; that the prisoners taken in the affair of Jumonville should be set free; and that two officers should remain as hostages for their safe return to Fort Duquesne. The hostages chosen were Van Braam and a brave but eccentric Scot, Robert Stobo.

Washington reports that 12 of the Virginians were killed on the spot, and 43 wounded, while there are no returns on the casualties in Mackay's company. Villiers reports his own loss at only 20 in all. The numbers engaged are uncertain. The six companies of the Virginia Regiment counted 305 men and officers, and Mackay's company 100; but many were on the sick list, and some had deserted. About 350 may have taken part in the fight. On the French side, Villiers says that the detachment as originally formed consisted of 500 white men. These were increased after his arrival at Fort Duquesne, and one of the party reports that 700 marched on the expedition. The number of Native Americans joining them is not given; but as nine tribes and communities contributed to it, and as two barrels of wine were required to give the warriors a parting feast, it must have been considerable. White men and Native Americans, it seems clear that the French force was more than twice that of the British, while they were better posted and better sheltered, keeping all day under cover, and never showing themselves on the open meadow. There were no Native Americans with Washington.


On July 4 in the early morning, Fort Necessity was abandoned and Washington's retreat began. The Native Americans had killed all the horses and cattle, and Washington's men were so burdened with the sick and wounded, whom they were obliged to carry on their backs, that most of the baggage was perforce left behind. Even then they could march but a few kilometres, and then encamped to wait for wagons. The Native Americans increased the confusion by plundering, and threatening an attack. They knocked to pieces the medicine chest, thus causing great distress to the wounded, two of whom they murdered and scalped. For a time there was danger of panic; but order was restored, and the wretched march began along the forest road that led over the Alleghenies, 84 km to the station at Wills Creek.

The defeat at Fort Necessity was doubly disastrous to the British, since it was a new step and a long one towards the ruin of their interest with the Native Americans; and when, in the next year, the smouldering war broke into flame, nearly all the western tribes drew their scalping-knives for France.

Villiers went back exultant to Fort Duquesne, burning the buildings of Gist's settlement and the storehouse at Redstone Creek on his way. Not a British flag now waved beyond the Alleghenies.

On July 17, Washington delivered his report of the engagement to Governor Dinwiddie, expecting a rebuke, but Washington instead received a vote of thanks from the House of Burgesses and Dinwiddie blamed the defeat not on Washington but on poor supply and the refusal of aid by the other colonies.


This article is mainly a combination of abridged and adapted excerpts from the following book, which is now in the public domain:

  • Parkman, Francis, Montcalm and Wolfe, Collier Books, New York, 1884, pp. 75-89

Other sources

Dechêne, Louise: Le Peuple, l’État et la Guerre au Canada sous le Régime français, Éditions du Boréal, 2008, pp. 500-501

Wikipedia - Battle of Fort Necessity